25th April 2023
Within the word impossible is embedded the word ‘possible’. We need people who believe, who know that the possible exists within the impossible’’ . . .
So said Senator George Mitchell last Monday in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, at the start of what was a momentous few days for this place. Senator Mitchell’s speech was a tear-inducing, life-enhancing masterpiece. It had pathos, humour, history, philosophy, therapy, and good advice, all structured and worded with understated brilliance.
I count myself incredibly lucky to have been in the room, and very grateful to Queen’s for hosting the Agreement25 conference and creating the opportunity for George Mitchell to cast his long and benign shadow forward over the situation here, one more time. I use that image of a shadow casting itself forward because it comes from another favourite speech of mine, David Trimble’s Nobel Lecture in Oslo in December 1998. I was glad to hear An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar quote from it in his excellent speech at Queen’s on Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday was some day too, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and former US President Bill Clinton also making memorable contributions. If you didn’t see these speeches and need a reminder that politics, at its best, can elevate and inspire, find them on the web, you will be glad you did. The Mitchell speech is just over 40 minutes long, his first public engagement in three years. That is some going for an 89-year-old whose doctors advised against him travelling. His delivery was flawless, clearly supported by his wife Heather, another quiet hero of the peace process.
The week before last we also had President Biden in town and while some criticised his short trip here, I thought his visit and speech at Ulster University’s spectacular new campus was excellent and very well judged by Paul Narain, the US Consul General, and his team, who put it together. The emphasis on young people and innovation worked very well, with the introduction from Catalyst chief executive Steve Orr threading the strands of youth entrepreneurship and economic progress for President Biden to build on, in his speech.
I hadn’t heard it before, but in one of the discussion sessions at Queen’s the following week, Bill Clinton revealed that British government diplomacy had prevailed over President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 to the extent that Northern Ireland was not explicitly mentioned in his speeches and was never considered as part of his itinerary. How things have changed since then.
The rest of President’s Biden trip was a triumphal homecoming for him. I couldn’t help but smile at the joy of it all, particularly his speech in Ballina. ‘Mayo for Sam,’ he shouted at the end. If the Mayo lads can finally do it this year, I wouldn’t bet against a White House reception for the team and likewise if Ireland can come home from France with the Rugby World Cup.
President Biden’s Irishness is genuine and real. We are lucky to have him. And his appointment of Joe Kennedy III as our new economic envoy bodes well for business here also.
It was a pure accident that I happened to walk out of the Whitla Hall on Monday afternoon when they were unveiling the bust of George Mitchell on the front lawn of the University. Afterwards, I was talking in a small group which included the sculptor of the bust, Colin Davidson, who kindly allowed The Irish News to use his portrait of Paddy McKillen for this page last time.
Colin introduced me to a man called Colum McCann, and as the conversation progressed, it dawned on me that this was one of the world’s great authors standing beside me on the lawn. If you haven’t read his book Aperigon you need to. I know there are a lot of superlatives floating around this column today but honestly, Aperigon is a masterpiece.
I cannot do it justice here, but there is a great, free review on The Guardian website. Go read it, and then read the book. The story centres around the relationship and life of two fathers, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian, who lose their daughters in a suicide bomb and a fatal Israeli Army shooting, respectively.
As McCann says: “Bassam and Rami have allowed me to shape and reshape their words and worlds.” Their stories and their joint efforts for reconciliation afterwards are stitched into a brilliant novel.
As the conversation progressed on the University lawn, it emerged that Colum had helped George with his speech. Colum was very modest about it of course, saying only, as with Bassam and Rami, that he had merely shaped George’s own words and thoughts. I learned later that Colum had spent four days with the Senator doing so, which tells you all you need to know about the work required to make a great, globally significant speech.
For me also, it reminded me how much of an inspirational role that art, be it a sculpture, painting or the words and phrases of a novelist or poet, can have on civic life, politics and even, the world of business. In JFK’s famous tribute to Robert Frost, he said: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses...”
As everybody left the Whitla Hall after Senator Mitchell’s speech, school children were outside handing out a little, pocket-sized pamphlet entitled ‘The Possible,’ a faithful record of extracts of George Mitchell’s speech, another memorable idea from Colum McCann. At the same time in New York, Washington, London, Dublin and Limerick, school children there did the same thing with 5,000 copies of the speech handed out, all produced by McCann’s reading charity, Narrative4, with support from the Moriah and Ireland funds.
At the start of the speech, Senator Mitchell described the signing of the Good Friday Agreement as ‘a day when history opened itself to hope.’ Last Monday at Queen’s was another of those days, let’s hope, and work, for many more.
To contact Paul, click here
Photo: Artist and sculptor Colin Davidson and novelist Colum McCann at the unveiling of the new sculpture of George Mitchell at Queen’s University Belfast